George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Pierre L’Enfant, 11 September 1789

From Pierre L’Enfant

New york Septmr the 11th 1789.


The late determination of Congress to lay the Fundation of a City which is to become the Capital of this vast Empire, offer so great an occasion of acquiring reputation, to whoever may be appointed to conduct the execution of the business, that your Excellency will not be surprised that my Embition and the desire I have of becoming a usefull Citizen should lead me to wish a share in the Undertaking.1

No Nation perhaps had Ever before the opportunity offerd them of deliberately deciding on the spot where thier Capital city Should be fixud, or of Combining Every necessary consideration in the choice of Situation—and altho’ the means now within the power of the Country are not such as to pursue the design to any great extant it will be obvious that the plan Should be drawn on such a Scale as to leave room for that aggrandisement & embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the Nation will permit it to pursue at any period however remote—viewing the Matter in this light I am fully sensible of the extant of the undertaking and under the hope of a continuation of the indulgence you have hitherto honored me with I now presume to sollicit the favor of being Employed in this Business.

and now that I am addressing your Excellency I will avail myself of the occasion to call to your attention an object of at least equal importance to the dignity of the Nation, and in which her quiet and prosperity is intimately connected I mean the protection of the Sea Coast of the united States—This has hitherto been left to the Individual States and has been so totally neglected as to endanger the peace of the Union for it is certain that any insult offered on that side (and there is nothing to prevent it) however immaterial it might be in its total Effect, would degrade the nation and do more injury to its political interests than a much greater depradation on her Inland frontiers from these considerations I Should argue the necessity of the different Bays and Sea ports being fortified at the expence of the Union, in order that one general and uniform System may prevail throughout, that being as necessary as an Uniformity in the discipline of the Troupes to whom they are to be Intrusted.

I flater Myself your Excellency will Excuse the freedom with which I impart to you my ideas on this subject indeed my Confidence in this Business arises in a great measure from a persuasion that the Subject has already engaged your attention. having had the honor to belong to the Corps of Engineer acting under your orders during the late war, and being the only officers of that Corps remaining on the Continant I must Confess I have long flattered myself with the hope of a reappointment a hope which was encouraged by several individuals of the former Congress—and now when the Establishment of a truly fœderal Gouvernment renders every post under it more desirable, I view the appointment of Engineer to the United States as the one which could possibly be most gratifying to my wishes and tho’ the necessety of such an office to superintend & direct the fortifications necessary in the United States is sufficiently apparent the advantages to be derived from the appointment will appear more striking when it is considered that the sciences of Military and civil architeture are so connected as to render an Engineer Equally serviceable in time of peace as in war by the employment of his abilities in the internal improvemen⟨ts⟩ of the Country.

Not to intrude any longer on your patience and without entering on any particular relating to my private circumstances of which I believe you are sufficiently informed I shall conclud by assuring you that ever animated as I have been with a desir to merite your good opinion nothing will be wanting to compleat my happiness if the remembrance of my former services connected with a variety of peculiar circumstances during fourteen years residence in this Country can plead with your Excellency in support of the favour I sollicite. I have the honor to be with a profound respect Your Excellency Most humble and obeident servant

P. C. L’Enfant


Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754–1825) was born in Paris. He apparently received some private instruction in art and architecture in France before he was solicited by Silas Deane for service in the Continental army. L’Enfant was appointed a first lieutenant of engineers by the Continental Congress in December 1776 and sailed for America in February 1777, spending the winter at GW’s headquarters at Valley Forge. During the war he served as a captain of engineers with GW’s army in the north and by 1779 had joined the southern army. L’Enfant was wounded at Savannah in October of that year and was taken prisoner at Charleston in 1780. He ended the war as a major. During the 1780s he designed the medal for the Society of the Cincinnati and Gen. Richard Montgomery’s tomb in St. Paul’s Chapel in New York and converted New York City’s old City Hall into Federal Hall. Appointed by GW early in 1791 to survey the site for the new Federal City, L’Enfant arrived at Georgetown in March 1791 to embark on his brief and troubled tenure as designer of the new city.

1L’Enfant is referring to the discussions in Congress concerning the establishment of a permanent seat of government. The controversy over the site for the new government in the fall of 1789 was a continuation of the negotiations that had started in the Confederation Congress in the summer of 1788. The resolutions of the Federal Convention submitting the Constitution to Congress, 17 Sept. 1787, specified that after nine states had ratified, electors should be appointed and senators and representatives elected and that the senators and representatives should convene at the time and place assigned. See the report to the Confederation Congress, signed by GW, 17 Sept. 1787. By the early part of July 1788, all of the states except New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island had ratified the Constitution, and Congress moved to set up the new government. Setting up procedures for the first election moved smoothly, but the decision on the meeting place for Congress was postponed, partly because the delegates hoped the expectation of receiving the plum of the capital would push New York toward ratification. Delegates to the Ratifying Convention from strongly Federalist New York City eventually reached a compromise with Antifederalists, exchanging support for the location of the temporary capital in New York City for approval of a circular letter from the New York Ratifying Convention calling for a second federal convention to amend the Constitution. Between July and September a vigorous and sometimes acrimonious debate in Congress and in the newspapers over the seat for the new government took place, with New York and Philadelphia as the leading contenders. For an account of congressional maneuvering on this issue during these months, see Bowling, Creation of Washington, description begins Kenneth R. Bowling. The Creation of Washington, D.C.: The Idea and Location of the American Capital. Fairfax, Va., 1991. description ends D.C, 87–96. By August 1788 public pressure and the fear that further delay in arranging the temporary capital would jeopardize the new government led the supporters of Philadelphia to surrender their ambitions for the moment, and on 13 Sept. 1788 the Confederation Congress agreed that New York would be the meeting place for the new Congress. The question whether New York would remain the temporary capital until a permanent capital could be chosen was left open.

During the summer of 1789, while Congress dealt with other matters, behind-the-scenes maneuvering among various congressional delegations with regard to the future location of the capital continued. When the question was again raised in Congress in late August support was voiced not only for New York but also for such sites as Philadelphia, the Potomac, the Susquehanna, the falls of the Delaware, and Germantown. On 27 Aug. the House of Representatives agreed “that a permanent residence ought to be fixed for the general government of the United States, at some convenient place, as near the center of wealth, population, and extent of territory, as may be consistent with convenience to the nagivation of the Atlantic ocean, and having due regard to the particular situation of the western country” (DHFC description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972—. description ends , 3:171–72, 181, 182). On 7 Sept. a second resolution was introduced proposing to locate the permanent seat of government “at some convenient place on the east bank of the river Susquehanna, in the state of Pennyslvania, and that until the necessary buildings be erected for the purpose, the seat of government ought to continue at the city of New-York.” A subsequent motion to amend this resolution by striking out the words “east bank of the river Susquehanna, in the state of Pennsylvania,” and substituting the words “north bank of the river Potowmac, in the state of Maryland” was defeated 29 to 21. Successive motions to amend the resolution to locate the seat of government at Wilmington, Del., at “Potowmac, Susquehannah, or Delaware,” on the “banks of either side of the river Delaware, not more than eight miles above or below the lower falls of Delaware,” and to insert the words “or Maryland” after Pennsylvania were all defeated. Finally the House “Resolved, That the President of the United States be authorised to appoint three commissioners to examine and report to him the most eligible situation on the banks of the Susquehannah, in the state of Pennsylvania, for the permanent seat of the government of the United States; that the said commissioners be authorised, under the direction of the President, to purchase such quantity of land as may be thought necessary, and to erect thereon, within four years, suitable buildings for the accommodation of the Congress, and of the officers of the United States; that the secretary of the treasury, together with the commissioners so to be appointed, be authorised to borrow a sum not exceeding one hundred thousand dollars, to be repaid within twenty years, with interest not exceeding the rate of five per cent. per annum, out of the duties on impost and tonnage, to be applied to the purchase of the land, and the erection of the buildings aforesaid; and that a bill ought to pass in the present session in conformity with the foregoing resolutions.”

The House finally agreed to the resolution, with the proviso that Pennsylvania and Maryland remove all obstructions in the river between the seat of government and the mouth of the river, and ordered a bill to be brought in (DHFC description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972—. description ends , 3:182–94). Although there was considerable pressure to have Philadelphia made the capital, the Senate on 25 Sept. amended the bill to authorize a district not exceeding ten miles square in the area of Germantown for the seat of government (ibid., 1:191). On 26 Sept. the bill was given a third reading, passed with amendments, and was sent to the House. The House considered the bill with the Senate’s amendments on 26 Sept., and on 28 Sept. it agreed to the amended bill, added an amendment of its own, and sent the bill back to the Senate. At this point the Senate voted to hold the bill over to the next session (ibid., 203). Those members of Congress who hoped a postponement would give them time for extensive additional lobbying for their favored locations for the capital were to be disappointed. The debate on the seat for the new government was to be almost the first order of business when Congress reconvened in January 1790. For a description of the involved and occasionally Machiavellian tactics of the congressional delegations on the seat of government bill, see Bowling, Creation of Washington, D.C., description begins Kenneth R. Bowling. The Creation of Washington, D.C.: The Idea and Location of the American Capital. Fairfax, Va., 1991. description ends chapter 5. A colorful contemporary account of the maneuvering of individual members of Congress appears in Sen. William Maclay’s diary (Bowling and Veit, Diary of William Maclay, description begins Kenneth R. Bowling and Helen E. Veit, eds. The Diary of William Maclay and Other Notes on Senate Debates. Baltimore, 1988. description ends 144–48, 150–67).

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